“Since then, there has never been such a prophet in
Israel as Moses, the one who knew Yahweh face to
- Deuteronomy 34:10
“Now we are seeing a dim reflection in a mirror, but
then we shall see face to face. The knowledge I have
now is imperfect, but then I shall know as fully as I
- I Corinthians 13:12
Isaiah 50:4-9a; Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 26:14-27:66 or
Jesus had a face. It was a man’s face, a human face. That’s about all we know about it. Frederick Buechner begins his preface in the historical art book The Faces of Jesus (Simon and Schuster):
""Whoever he was or was not, whoever he thought he was, whoever he has become in the memories of men since and will go on becoming for as long as men remember him – exalted, sentimentalized, debunked, made and remade to the measure of each generation’s desire, dread, indifference – he was a man once, whatever else he may have been. And he had a man’s face. Like you and me he had a face his life gave shape to andthat shaped his life and other’s lives . . . We face that face – all the ways men have dreamed it down the years, painted and sculpted it, scratched it into wool and silk, hammered it out of gold. There it is. Take it or leave it.""
Have you ever wondered why the gospel writers didn’t describe the face of Jesus? Most likely it’s because faces weren’t all that important in ancient times. In anything written before the 16th century, the narrative consists almost entirely of what was done and said, not what the speaker looked like. Communication was through words and deeds, not through facial expression or body language. In the surviving records, literary or material, there is little to indicate that anyone thought of his own face, or of other people’s faces. Even in the field of ancient art, in the carvings, the sculpture, the castings or the vase paintings, the artists were concerned with the whole body, often with numbers of bodies in the same composition, to which the faces were severely subordinated by the scale and context of the general design. There seemed to be only a remote interest in the face. Even Greek theater was devoid of any intense interest towards the face and its expressive qualities; the actors were compelled to hide their faces behind or inside masks.
Be that as it may - Jesus had a face! It’s mentioned several times in the lengthy Gospel readings at the top of the page. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he “fell on his face and prayed” (Mt. 26:39); later Judas planted a kiss of betrayal, presumably upon the face (vs. 49); and finally, some of the crowd calling for his crucifixion, “spat in his face, and struck him; and some slapped him” (vs. 67).
The connecting Old Testament passage from Isaiah speaks of the “suffering servant’s” face: mentioning the tongue, the ear, and it has him offering “my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I hid not my face from shame and spitting. For the Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been confounded; therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame” (Isaiah 50:6-7).
To the writers of the Old Testament, the face of a person is not a front to live one’s life behind but a frontier, the outermost, visible edge of one’s life itself in all its richness and multiplicity. The face is the way one has of being and of being seen. The writers of the New Testament, likewise, give no description of the face of Jesus, because it was his life inside them that was the news they hawked rather than the color of his eyes, the shape of his nose, or the expression of his mouth. The face only indicated direction: “He set his face to go to Jerusalem” or “he fell on his face and prayed” – and as an open frontier offered in love, to be accepted or rejected . . . . to be spit upon, to be kissed, to be slapped, to be struck.
One way to read the entire Bible is to note the gradual unveiling of our faces, the gradual creating of personhood, from infants to adults. (Do you know that our English word person comes from the word selected to describe the “persons” of the Trinity, who were seen as an endless capacity for relationship?) Biblical spirituality has the potential of creating “persons” who can both receive and give out of love, and love that is perfectly free. Love is the true goal, but faith is the process of getting there, and hope is the willingness to live without resolution or closure. They are indeed, “the three things that last” (1Corinthians 13:13), but there are few practical teachers of the way of faith and the way of hope. Let’s see how the Bible tries to get us there.
Let’s start with Moses on Mount Sinai. He says to Yahweh, “Show me your glory, I beg you.” And Yahweh says, “I will let all my splendor pass in front of you, and I will pronounce before you the name Yahweh. But I have compassion on whom I will. I show pity to whom I please. You are not ready to see my face. For humanity cannot see me and live.” And so Yahweh says to him, “There’s a place in the cleft of the rock; stand there. When my glory passes by, I will shield you with my hand while I pass by. Then I will take my hand away and you will see the back of me. But my face you cannot see” (Exodus 33:18-20).
At the beginning, mature adult relationship with God is not yet possible. Now hold on that that because, by the end of the Bible, we’re going to have perfectly personal interface, but it is going to take us a long time to get there, just as it does with each of us individually (remember, each soul is unique, just as each face is). And then it is only through Jesus that such a relationship with God is possible.
We all fear and avoid intimacy. It is too powerful and demands that we also “have faces,” that is, self-confidence, identity, dignity and a certain courage to accept our own unique face – and then even worse – that once we have it, to be willing to give it away to another. `
On this Sunday, consider the face of Jesus. Not what it looked like, but how it was presented – openly. He, like the suffering servant of God, “hid not his face” but “set it like a flint” – a firm face that was not confounded by spittle, slaps, blows, or a kiss of betrayal.
I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me
from all my fears. Look to him, and be radiant; so your
faces shall never be ashamed.”
- Psalms 34:4-5